February 12, 2012

The art of pushing somebody over the cliff

Posted in Book Reviews, Literature tagged , , , at 4:47 pm by faraway67

On Don DeLillo’s “The Angel Esmeralda”

Everybody can write a novel. No, really. Probably not everybody can write a good novel. But telling a long story – that is not that difficult, is it? The real art, so it appears to me, is to write a short story. Distilling a whole story, places, characters and thoughts, emotion and evolution, down to a few pages and still painting a vivid and sweeping picture, that is a real challenge.

Don DeLillo, reading in NYC, courtesy of WikiMedia Commons

“The Angel Esmeralda” has been my first encounter with Don DeLillo. It is a collection of  nine short stories, written between 1979 and 2011, and not a single one can be compared to another. They show a whole universe of ideas, situated in strange and familiar places,  from a Carribean island to a museum, from space to Greece, inhabited with strangers and movie addicts, students and teachers, prisoners and tourists. The only thing that stays the same: Every single one will leave you gasping for air.

DeLillo divided his book into three parts – each part introduced by a picture, a visual prelude of what will follow.

The first story, “Creation”, will give you a deep insight into the way men’s minds (and emotions) work. Or do not work. At all. It will be up to you to decide that.

“Human moments in world war III” provides you with a very special look at a strange, disturbing and still beautiful earth. It also deals with the question if musing too much is a nuisance. Here ends the first part of the book.

Whilst “The Runner” takes you to a very unusual crime scene, you will have to endure both figurative and literal earthquakes in “The Ivory Acrobat” (which was my favourite story), and also learn about the beauty and power of Ancient Cretan art.

“The Angel Esmeralda” is a particularly touching story, where symbolism meets a cruel reality, and, entwining, both lead towards new hope.

Part three of the book, comprising four stories, takes you on a rollercoaster trip starting with a visit at a museum and a far too close look at German terrorists in “Baader-Meinhof”, then moving on to a painful mix of imagination and reality in “Midnight in Dostoevsky” and a very special approach to the Greek economic crisis in “Hammer and Sickle”, and finally comes to a furious finale in the strange behaviour and twisted dreams of a movie addict in “The Starveling”.

The two main motifs that occur again and again are, in my opinion, obsession and loss of reality. DeLillo displays these in many different nuances, in every imaginable way, from the ordinary daily trials to flee everyday pain, grief and sorrow to the complete loss of the last thread that keeps a person from madness.

The most enchanting part while reading the book, however, is the language DeLillo uses. Down to earth, clear and sharp, and still poetic. I like to call this particular style “farmer’s poetry”. A fascinating world to explore – often it takes a while till you notice, but suddenly you become aware with amazement how his language, how words and sentences form intricate patterns of utter beauty.

Reading DeLillo’s short stories in “The Angel Esmeralda” is like going on a walk with him. He talks to you tenderly, and, as it were, lays his arms around your shoulders. You feel absolutely comfortable and at ease. For five lines, half a page, or even two pages. And then you suddenly realize that he has taken you to a high cliff. And while you are still trying to figure out what has happened – he pushes you over the edge. And you fall. And fall. And fall. Till the story is over and you hit the ground. And sometimes you do not hit it at all. And do you know what is the worst part? Next time he asks you for a walk – you happily join him again, blind to the consequences. Truly a read for the brave. Will you dare? Try it, you won’t regret it.

“It is for that combination of terror and comedy and sheer song that everyone wants to give Don DeLillo an award.”
Nathan Englander

Bonus: If you want to know more about Don DeLillo, read his biography on  Wikipedia and in his own words, a  profound review on “The Angel Esmeralda” from the “New York Review of Books” (H/T to my friend Matthias Rascher), a great “Paris Review” interview and finally enjoy watching Nathan Englander’s wonderful laudatio to Don presenting him with the 2010 Pen/Saul Bellow Award as well as his court but poignant answer in the video below.

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January 20, 2012

A house of books

Posted in Literature tagged , , at 12:12 pm by faraway67

Or Why one book at a time is not enough for me…

That's what my nightstand usually looks like.

Imagine yourself living in a gorgeous house. Many rooms can be found there, and each of them is different. A kitchen, bedrooms, bathrooms, a living room, a dining room, several salons, all in different colours and styles. Tell me – which of you would use only one room a day, looking around until you have seen each and every detail in the room? Nobody would, certainly. Of course you would start your day getting up in your bedroom, then take a refreshing shower in the bathroom. You would go down to the kitchen for breakfast. Presumably if you had the time you would perhaps spend an hour in one of the salons, maybe the red one, snuggled up into that comfortable big leather armchair, reading a book, before going on to your den to write some letters. Around noon there would be a quick lunch – there is that nice little green salon on the first floor, perfectly fitting for this purpose. In the afternoon, you could sit down in the library, and maybe there would be a bit of time to spend in the music salon playing the piano before meeting up with a dear friend for dinner, which would of course be taken in the festive atmosphere of the dining room. Afterwards you would go over to the big living room to share some quality time talking there. And when he/she had finally gone, it would probably be time to go to bed in your bedroom again. Now, how does that sound to you?

I do not know exactly how many books I own. Must be about 10.000 volumes. I am a bookaholic, I confess. (Friends call me even “addicted to books”, and I am afraid they might be right. It has never been a good idea to let me go into a bookstore – I do not think I have ever come out without buying anything;-)

For me, my library is like the most beautiful house and my books are the rooms in it. There are many, many rooms to explore and I feel comfortable in all of them. But I do not feel comfortable spending my whole time reading only one at a time. I want to open all the doors. I want to inhale all the smells. See all the colours. Hear all the voices. So my nightstand, the desk in my den, even the sofa in the living room are always covered with books. And I can tell you –my family and friends often tell me off because of that! But then, some time ago, I listened to a brilliant interview on NPR dealing with exactly that question, and I thought – YES! Finally somebody seemed to understand me! Julia Keller, Chicago Tribune cultural critic, talked about her approach to books, and how she reads several books at one time. I agree with her on literally everything. It is not a question of being easily bored as you could assume, neither of not being able to concentrate on a single one. It is a question of wanting more.  One book is just not enough. I want to keep my thoughts open and my horizons wide. Certainly none of you is occupied with only one issue, one thought, for days and days? So, why should I force my brain to do exactly that the moment I take up a book?

A typical reading scenario.

But what is a house, even the most beautiful one, if you are alone in it?  Of course you can admire the architecture and enjoy the interior. Still the rooms will not come alive until you share them with others. For me it is the same with books. I have experienced that all the more since I have started reading a lot of English books and found a friend to share with. Certainly I enjoy reading on my own, savouring the beauty of words, structure and thoughts. But it is so much more fun to talk and think, to be questioned and re-think, to digest your thoughts into words – you get so  much more challenged and everything gets brighter and deeper.

Ever since I started this blog, I wanted to share my thoughts about literature with you. 2012 seems the year to begin with. So stay tuned and get to know my books – the ones I love, the ones that touched me, the ones that challenged me.

But beware: I will not write classical reviews. You can find them by the dozen on amazon.com or goodreads.com. What I really want to share with you are my thoughts and feelings about what I have read. The things that impressed me, irritated me, upset me. And I would love you to share with me as well!

“To read is to fly: it is to soar to a point of vantage which gives a view over wide terrains of history, human variety, ideas, shared experience and the fruits of many inquiries.”
A.C. Grayling

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